Clients, colleagues, and fellow copywriters often ask the same question about articles and images they find online, “Can I put this on my site?” The correct answer is always the same, “it depends.” When you’re creating website copy, writing a blog, or generating any kind of content in general, make sure you know what you’re doing!

 

The Basics:


Any tangible medium of work is protected by the U.S. Constitution in the form of copyright (intellectual property law). You do not have to register your work for it to remain protected (though you do have to register it in order to sue over it). Therefore, all original forms of literary, musical, dramatic, and artistic works are protected the moment they are created.

The introduction of the Internet made this intellectual property law a little fuzzy.  People can easily copy, download, record, or hotlink files all across the Web, and “everybody’s doing it.” Not to mention how Napster seriously misled us all back in the late nineties. While it seems like Internet copyright is easy to ignore, that’s only because people aren’t suing just yet! Remember, just because you aren’t getting sued, doesn’t mean other action won’t be taken. Here are a few much-needed guidelines for content use and etiquette.

 

Playing by the Rules:

 

For starters, if you want to use someone else’s work on your site, in any form, the only foolproof way to ensure that you do not get sued for plagiarism or copyright infringement is to ask permission from the originator of the work. Whether it is an image, a block of text, or a song, your safest bet is to ask. In most cases, we tend to default to the “don’t ask for permission, beg for forgiveness” caveat, but that won’t stand up to a sue-happy creator in this economy.

That being said, you are generally allowed to use content for educational use, as long as you cite the source and you are not making a profit.

From Copyright.gov :

"How much of someone else’s work can I use without getting permission?"

"Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances.”

Generally speaking, if you take a block of text from someone’s blog, put it in quote form, cite the source, and link to the original blog, you’re probably in the clear. If you do this in print, you’re probably not. If in doubt, you can always review the FAQs on the government’s site.

 

Fun Examples:

Noam Golai's Art

 

Noam Golai

If you are not using the online content for profit, you are more likely to get away with it. Many true artists, poets, musicians, etc. really want their art to be seen and heard, so they might appreciate the exposure. See Noam Golai. He took many photographs of himself, posted them on Flickr, and later found they were being used across the world. You may recognize this image as a symbol of freedom from oppression: 

Watch Noam Golai’s Story at Fstoppers.

 

NOM Blog vs. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

In another story, a popular comic artist came across one of his comics being used on the NOM Blog to support anti-gay movements. He soon realized that they hot linked the image to his site. Many of you know that when an image is hot linked, you can easily change the image on the host’s side, and any other sites that are hot linked to that image will then display the new image. Rather than replacing it with something raunchy or pornographic, the clever Zach Weiner took the high road and inserted this image instead:

 

SMBC Cartoon by Zach Weiner

 

And finally, my favorite copyright story to date: The Cook’s Source story.

  • A blogger named Monica writes an article about a medieval recipe and posts it on her blog.
  • A friend of Monica’s finds her recipe and article in the northeastern, for-profit magazine, Cook’s Source, and congratulates Monica.
  • Monica decides there must be some confusion, since she didn’t give permission for the article to be used, and begins emailing Judith Griggs, an editor of the magazine, about reimbursement (mind you, she requested a donation to a school, not payment).

Then it really gets good. Rather than apologizing for lifting Monica’s article, Ms. Griggs takes it entirely too far in her email reply: 

But honestly Monica, the web is considered "public domain" and you should be happy we just didn’t "lift" your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!"

 

Well, the social media world took over and bombed the Cook’s Source Facebook page so badly they had to take it down. Someone contacted a few individual advertisers of the magazine and they removed their listing, and then the magazine’s website was shut down. And as far as I know, the Cook’s Source magazine no longer exists. This happened over a matter of weeks last fall. It seems that some people do not stay up to date on today’s copyrighting laws. But hey, it was just a recipe!

For those of you considering hot linking that image, or lifting that blog, you should think twice about it. If you can’t get permission, and you can’t clearly cite and link to the original source, you should not use the content! 

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